Standing apart from the more popular scenic sights of Death Valley, on the northern fringes of the park stands a structure incongruous to its surroundings, a place as fascinating in its history as in its style. An hour’s drive will take you there, but a half day at least should be put aside. You’ll find it easy to forget about the desert as you learn about the history this home has to tell. In short words, Death Valley Ranch (aka Scotty’s Castle) is simply an amazing place. We looked forward to seeing this spot as much as we had enjoyed our canyon hikes.
Prospector, performer, and con man Walter Scott born in Cynthiana, Kentucky, was also known as “Death Valley Scotty.” Coming to the Death Valley area in the early 1900s, he contrived a way to make money without expending a lot of energy. Skilled at fabrication and telling tall tales, he convinced Chicago millionaire Albert Mussey Johnson along with many other wealthy businessmen, to invest in his gold mine in the Death Valley area. After turning over huge sums of money to Scott, Johnson eventually learned that there was never a mine. Although initially angered, Johnson was fascinated with the colorful Scott and the two men struck up a close but unlikely friendship. Johnson also came to love the Death Valley area and thought it was a healthy place to live. He began building a winter home here in the early 1920s, and later his wife added considerable style to the initial structure.
Costing between $1.5 and $2.5 million, the style is a blend of Moorish and Tuscan Italian. No expense was spared to provide all the modern conveniences of plumbing and electricity. The rooms were embellished with hand-carved wood moldings and decorated with the finest imported furnishings.
Johnson always kept a low profile, and publicly claimed that he was only Scotty’s banker; and that this was Scotty’s home. Scotty always claimed the money came from his secret mine, calling the home his “castle.”
The landscaping was as finished and elaborate as the house. Acres of manicured gardens, a flowing stream ended with a small oasis. Outbuildings kept to the same style as the mansion.
Upon their deaths and leaving no heirs behind, the Johnsons left their mansion to the Gospel Foundation, a charity founded by Albert Johnson in 1946. The NPS purchased the property in 1970 for $850,000, restoring it to its former grandeur. And most of the furnishings were original.
Our tour ended in the Grand Music Room, where we were treated to the sounds of the 1,121 Welte Theater pipe organ, as was the tradition with all guests of the Johnsons. Its sound was reverberating and strong, leaving everyone silently overwhelmed.
Tours of the house are given every day, and they are very popular. Guided by well-informed park rangers and volunteers, they are costumed and give living history accounts of the times.
Albert Johnson was a civil engineer by schooling, and had a life-long interest in the most up-to-date technology. The inner workings of his home reflect his innovations and a special Underground Tour illustrates some of those developments. Of course, we signed up for that one too.
The springs of Grapevine Canyon provided the water supply for the ranch and were used to generate electricity. The springs, located about 300 feet higher than the villa, generated enough water flow and pressure to turn a Pelton wheel, which ran the generator that furnished the villa’s electricity. The power was regulated and backed up by hundreds of nickel–iron batteries in the house’s tunnels. The springs provided enough
water to meet all the needs of the ranch, with enough left for other uses. A water fountain was constructed in the Great Hall, where water dripped down a rock face creating evaporative cooling and into a catch basin for recirculation. A 1930’s solar hot water heater, much larger than today’s solar water heaters, is near the main house.
We lingered here awhile longer, walked the grounds and browsed the visitor center. It was still a world apart, a civilized spot amid such an uninviting landscape. We tried to imagine what life would have been here, when the Johnsons and Scotty entertained their guests. It was a way of life long past.
It’s not what you’d expect when visiting Death Valley, but Scotty’s Castle should definitely be on your agenda.
And that just about ended our activities here in Death Valley. One more sunrise to experience (have we been spoiled or what???) . . .
. . . and then the road we were taking stretched far into the desert distance. An unimaginable journey to those attempting to cross Death Valley on foot or horseback. Yet, some did just that.
But wait! One last unique sight was waiting to show itself around the road’s turn. Corkscrew Peak is a distinguishing landmark on the far eastern edge of the park. Although not close to being the highpoint of the Grapevine Range, it is definitely one of the most commanding and recognizable. Just another attraction that makes Death Valley so full of character.
And then, the road ahead was long and straight and flat. We drove towards the distant mountains . . .
. . . and left Death Valley behind.
Taking lots of good memories with us,